Luiza Jarovsky
Lawyer, PhD Candidate and Mother of 3

You are being manipulated online

Photo by Rishabh Dharmani on Unsplash
Photo by Rishabh Dharmani on Unsplash

Have you ever felt pushed to allow apps to access your camera, microphone or location whey they did not need any of them to function? Pressured to agree to receive email marketing, or to open an account when you were actually not interested? Maybe you have felt that it was so complicated to deal with certain privacy settings that you just gave up? Or that websites were using misleading language or confusing options to make you share more data than you would like to?

If any of these situations has ever happened to you, then you know what dark patterns in privacy are. Dark patterns (or deceptive design), according to Harry Brignull – the first designer who coined the term – are “tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.” Some common examples are websites or apps that make it almost impossible to cancel or delete an account, transparent or difficult to see links to unsubscribe from non-requested newsletters and insurance products that are surreptitiously added to your shopping cart. You can check more examples here.

One of the chapters of my ongoing PhD in privacy and data protection at Tel Aviv University is about dark patterns in the context of privacy. I defined them as “user interface design that manipulates users’ choice in a way detrimental to their privacy and beneficial to the service provider.” In simple terms, they are deceptive design practices used by websites and apps to collect more personal data from you. They are everywhere and most probably you have been encountering some form of dark pattern in a daily basis while navigating online. Below are three examples of practices I call dark patterns:

1- Misleading the user while asking a privacy related question:

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This is a screenshot of the TikTok sign up page (mobile). In this example, you cannot know if the “Yes” or “No” buttons are for the “are you over 18” or for the “do you allow TikTok to show personalized ads” question. According to my taxonomy, it would be a “mislead” type of dark pattern, as it misleads users into accepting personalized ads (as the user is forced to say “yes” to “confirm you are above 18.”

2- Pressuring the user to subscribe by using manipulative language:

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This is a screenshot of the website Groopdealz (desktop).  Here, through manipulative language (read the underlined text under the field to insert the email address), the website is pressuring the user to add his or her email and subscribe to the newsletter.

3- Making it difficult for users to understand privacy settings:

Here you can see a screenshot of Linkedin’s settings (mobile). All the sections above contain items that can be identified as related to privacy (despite the fact that only one section is called “data privacy”). Inside every category there are several options to choose from, leaving the user confused and probably incapable of understanding the meaning and context of each choice.

My goals in talking about dark patterns in this forum are: to increase awareness about them, to show how design can be used to manipulate you, and to advocate for the importance of protecting your personal data. Online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tiktok, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify and so on are companies working for (a lot of) profit and a very important input for them to make money is your personal data. These platforms share your data with third parties who want to buy targeted ads – the more specific, personal and even intimate the data they gather about you, the better. These advertisers are the ones that pay the bill, therefore platforms have every financial incentive to collect as much data from you as they can, even deploying manipulative techniques such as dark patterns. Data protection law is still lagging behind in many aspects, and one of them is manipulation, especially through design.

It is never possible to know 100% how your data is going to be used: to sell you shoes, to manipulate your emotions, to push you to vote for a certain party or to deny you a product or service. Therefore, if you want to protect your privacy, you must be self-aware about your choices and critical about your behavior: why are you sharing your personal information with a certain platform? What will you gain with it? What will the platform gain? Is is possible that you are being tricked or manipulated into behaving in a certain way that is actually harmful to you?

Privacy is a complex topic. I have researched it for years and I still get lost with confusing settings, online manipulation and lack of transparency. To help you navigate all these issues, I recorded a video with more information about dark patterns and tips to protect your privacy. You can watch it below and share in the comments what challenges you have encountered yourself while trying to protect your personal data online.

About the Author
Luiza was born in Brazil and immigrated to Israel in 2018. She is a lawyer and currently doing her PhD in Privacy and Data Protection at Tel Aviv University. In 2020, she was awarded by the President of Israel the "President's Scholarship for Excellence in Science and Innovation" for her PhD research. She speaks 6 languages and is learning Hebrew while being a mother of 3 kids.
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